Title: Interdisciplinary Educational
Opportunities in Astronomy
Author(s): M. Kafatos
Astronomy, always at the forefront of physical sciences, is becoming
increasingly interdisciplinary. Advances in astronomy require support from
theory, observations as well as computation and information technology. To
respond to the needs of both undergraduate and graduate training, modern
astronomy curricula must become broader than traditional programs. This is a
challenge as educational institutions are, often, slow to respond to changes
and faculty also have to be open to new techniques and broader horizons than
they were exposed to when they were receiving their education. The external
advisory committee which produced a report on the directions that Greek
astronomy ought to be following in the 21 century made a number of
recommendations related to education. In this presentation, I will build and
expand on what was recommended then.
Astronomy is a science driven largely by observations and university
programs must rely on accessing and utilizing existing databases as well as
exposing students to modern observational techniques. As such, Greek
professors, researchers and students must increasingly be exposed to
opportunities in research and education in observational and instrumental
astronomy. This can be achieved by access to modern European
facilities such as ESO; the continued modernization of the Schinakas
Observatory of the University of Crete; the creation of the new modern 2.3 m
telescope facility with requisite instrumental infrastructure; and the
availability of small telescopes, perhaps accessible via the World Wide Web
(WWW) at various Greek facilities, such as the observatory in Cephallonia,
the telescope at the University of Athens and at some other Greek
universities, for the benefit of undergraduate and even high school
Graduate programs in astronomy must take into account the close
association of modern astronomical techniques with advances in information
technology and new analytical methods. Modern astronomy increasingly relies
on advances from fields such as statistics, database management systems,
visualization and data mining for the analysis of large astronomical
Advances in computer technology and information sciences in the last
decade have been great and have greatly benefited astronomical research.
Adequate computer facilities and IT infrastructure are not only necessary
for advanced astronomical research but have become a necessity for
meaningful graduate programs. We will examine some existing graduate
programs that utilize computational sciences for providing graduate
education in astronomy. It must be emphasized that such programs do,
however, require adequate computational resources and infrastructure.
The existence of the WWW and the internet afford Greek astronomers
and educators opportunities which did not exist a few years ago and can
provide the basis for low-cost but meaningful education at all levels.
Large amounts of astronomical, space sciences and remote sensing data are
now freely available on the WWW and new programs such as the Sloan Digital
Sky Survey will increase the amount of information available by many-fold.
Because of the great expertise in both astronomy and computer science that
resides in Greek universities, astronomical facilities in Greece could make
substantial contributions to future “virtual observatories” contemplated
in Europe and the U.S. Access to such virtual observatory databases
can yield many benefits to Greek astronomical educational programs and is
relatively cheap to implement. The Astronomy 2000 report stated “Besides
the obvious scientific returns, e.g. for multifrequency observations of
celestial sources utilizing space‑based and ground‑based
observations; high‑energy astrophysics, etc., just to mention a couple
of examples; there are additional technical benefits: University students
can become trained in the access and usage of diverse databases and in
Internet technology. These benefits can extend beyond astronomy itself to
forefront computer and computational fields such as "data mining",
distributed databases and knowledge discovery and information”.
Clearly this is a very valid statement.
New interdisciplinary fields that are strongly based in astronomy,
such as astrobiology, can provide educational opportunities and be set up at
relatively low-cost. They can serve not just astronomical training and
education but provide the means to develop a general science teaching
curriculum for the training of high school teachers. It can also provide the
basis for a broad science course at Greek universities. Such a course would,
however, require joint teaching by astronomers, geoscientists and
biologists. We suspect it could be a very popular course.
In conclusion, astronomy is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.
Although training still requires traditional, focused astronomy-based
courses, new generations of Greek astronomers need to acquire innovative,
broadened skills such as computer science, computational science, and modern
data analysis methodologies. Also, modern astronomy and its associated space
programs can utilize advances in technology and at the same time be a
catalyst to advancing technological areas in Greek society such as
telecommunications, computation and a variety of other applications. This
will prove to be a challenge as well as a great opportunity.